International Space Station Helps With Global Problems

Its technologies have led to faster disaster responses, safer water, and less expensive ultrasound gear

8 February 2016

During the past 18 years, the International Space Station has conducted thousands of experiments in the microgravity and rigors of space. The better-known technologies that have resulted include stronger materials for buildings and cars, robotic arms for performing surgery, and air purification systems that kill viruses and airborne bacteria.

Lesser known are ISS efforts that are being applied by a number of countries. For example, images of natural disasters taken by ISS cameras have improved relief efforts on the ground. A water purification system and an app that helps people find sources of clean water have benefited many. And versions of a mobile ultrasound machine built to check astronauts’ health while in space are being used in remote villages.

Geoscientist William L. Stefanov talked about those and other projects in his keynote address last October at the IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference. Stefanov is associate International Space Station program scientist for Earth observations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston.


The ISS SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System (ISERV) camera provides state-of-the-art Earth monitoring, imaging, and mapping data. The SERVIR project is a partnership between NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The system participates in the U.N. International Charter for Space and Major Disasters, which is responsible for acquiring and disbursing data used for assessing and monitoring conditions following disasters.

ISERV automatically takes images of Earth through a 23-centimeter telescope with an off-the-shelf digital single-lens reflex camera, a field of view enlarger, and a high-precision focusing mechanism. It can capture three images per second, each covering approximately 19 kilometers by 11 km.

The system was put into operation in January 2013. That June it took images of floodwaters from the Bow and Elbow rivers near Calgary, Alta., Canada. That led to the safe evacuation of more than 100,000 people from Calgary and nearby towns. Canadian officials used the ISERV images to help them assess their disaster-response efforts and improve their flood-mapping algorithms.

When an earthquake struck Nepal in April last year, ISERV’s mapping software helped aid organizations on the ground locate villages and settlements that had suffered damage.


One in 10 people in the world lack access to safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization. Filtration and purification systems and innovative ways to test water quality developed aboard the ISS are being employed to change that.

Because of weight and space constraints, wastewater aboard the ISS is recycled. To make the water drinkable, the purification and filtration process relies on a microbial check valve. Basically, it’s an iodinated resin that attracts and kills bacteria in the water without electricity. A side benefit is that iodine, an essential element for brain function and cell development, is added to the water. Lack of iodine is a problem in many developing countries. The space station’s water-processing technology has been commercialized, and purifiers can be found in remote villages in Mexico and in Central and South America.

Testing for water purity in the space station has been developed into mWater, a suite of free cross-platform Web apps. John Feighery, mWater co-founder and former lead engineer for air and water monitoring at NASA, was inspired by his work for the space station.

Traditionally, water monitoring and surveying have been done by experts using expensive, bulky equipment—a challenge for poor communities. Feighery helped to develop an accurate coliform bacteria test to check for E. coli, for example, that needs no expensive equipment. MWater not only helps to find safe water, but it also maps water sources and simplifies the recording of water quality tests.

Users of the mWater Surveyor app are provided with low-cost testing kits for water samples. For example, the E. coli kit contains sterile polyethylene bags, test plates, a reagent gel that isolates the DNA from the germ, droppers, and a color-comparison chart that quantifies the amount of E. coli in the sample.

Testers fill the bag with water, remove a 1 millimeter drop, place it on the testing plate, add the reagent, seal the bag, and let it sit for 24 hours at a temperature between 27° and 40° C. They photograph the sample and color-comparison chart with their smartphone, then upload the images to a cloud-based global water database. The database uses the phone’s GPS to ascertain the water source and assigns each location a numeric identifier. The number then can be referred to by those visiting the global water source map that’s generated. More than 4,000 users in 59 countries have mapped and monitored water sites.


For the injured or sick, getting a quick and accurate diagnosis can be crucial. For those without a medical facility nearby, like the astronauts in orbit, it could mean the difference between life and death. Members of the ISS crew use a small ultrasound unit to examine each other. If they suspect a problem, they’re connected remotely to a doctor on the ground for a diagnosis.

Ultrasound is the only medical imaging device on the spaceship. It’s part of the Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity (ADUM) project, in which NASA researchers test novel applications of ultrasound in medical centers and laboratories on Earth, then adapt them for use in space. The ADUM ultrasound machine is a modified off-the-shelf system that weighs 5 kilograms and provides high-resolution images of the body. The unit has a converter to provide the capability of real-time ultrasound video downlinks.

Dr. Scott Dulchavsky, the ADUM project’s principal investigator, developed protocols for performing complex procedures rapidly with remote expert guidance. He adapted the protocols for use by professionals such as athletic trainers of sports teams. The American College of Surgeons, which requires ultrasound training for all surgical interns and residents, is using the ADUM program as well.

Dulchavsky adapted the same technology for use in remote villages and formed a partnership with the World Interactive Network Focused on Critical Ultrasound, an organization whose goal is to apply the technology to make medical care more available in remote regions. WINFOCUS develops educational materials and tele-ultrasound methods to train medical and nonmedical personnel. Using the ADUM methods, WINFOCUS has trained more than 20,000 physicians and other medical personnel in 68 countries

The ultrasound operators are connected via a satellite or an Internet connection to experts who guide them through the process. The machine’s video output is simultaneously transmitted to the experts.

Such projects are featured in International Space Station Benefits for Humanity, 2nd Edition, published in July.

The proceedings of the IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference have been published in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library.

And read about the winners of the first Intrepid International Space Station Challenge, an experiment design competition created by the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, in partnership with the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, and with funding from the IEEE Foundation. The winning team of sixth graders from Brooklyn, N.Y., designed an experiment that explores how microgravity affects the germination of pot mum seeds.

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